I haven’t been in a blog-writing mood of late. And why?
Well, for one thing, what else is there to say about life under COVID? Surely, by now most people are tired of hearing about it, and of course the news concerning the increasing spread of the virus is depressing, even frightening. Who needs more of that? But I’ve had my own personal reasons. I’ve seemingly lost the knack of sleeping and have been exhausted most of time. Instead of writing blogs, I mope. But who wants to read about Ken’s troubles? You have enough of your own, and probably in many cases, they are worse. Besides, I am loath to inflict upon you what I call TOMS: Tedious Old Men’s Syndrome.
So let’s talk about something else, although to begin with, you might find this a bit depressing, too. But, hang on, it won’t remain that way.
The other day I found myself thinking about Boccaccio's The Decameron. As you probably remember, he wrote it during the period of the Black Death in Europe when so many people were dying. Our situation isn’t anything nearly so dreadful as that time, of course, but for most of us it is bad enough. But whether we are talking about a plague or a pandemic, we are haunted by the specter of death. Death is all around us and, literally, in the air. Just in the United States as I write this, almost 150,000 people have died, and many more will die before this pandemic subsides, even if – unlike President Trump’s roseate make-believe fantasy -- it will probably never disappear altogether.
Well, alas, as you may have noticed, I ain’t no Boccaccio. I wish I could distract you from all this by telling you ribald tales of randy men, sportive ladies and fatuous priests, but regrettably, I no longer move in these circles. And as you may remember, because of my spinal stenosis, I hardly move at all. Instead, these days I am mostly a barely ambulatory insomniac.
But I can at least tell you what you can look forward to if you attain a venerable age as I have. First, you will become an orphan because your parents will die. And then, you will find your friends and relatives disappearing as they take up residence off-planet and no longer text you or answer your e-mails. And even those friends who remain will be, like mine, riddled with disease and other infirmities while they diligently work toward their own mortality.
I remember years ago reading a short story by John Updike in which the elderly commentator laments to his wife that when they were young and zesty, the gossip was all about who was sleeping with whom and who was the latest couple to split up. Now, he went on to say, it was who had landed in the hospital or had just died. From weddings to funerals until it was time for one’s own.
Well, friends, that’s life – and death. Nothing new there, but when you’re old, it has a certain poignancy. Which is why these days, I like to remember certain of my friends who have died in recent years. I miss them, sure, but it makes me happy to recall our friendships and the times we spent together. And it beats complaining about one’s lack of sleep and other troubles.
Can I share some memories of a few of my now dead but not forgotten friends with you? I hope you might enjoy meeting them, in absentia, of course, before you have to return to your own quotidian concerns.
Her real name wasn’t Sukie either, but that’s what everyone called her. We were the dearest of friends for almost thirty years. Sukie was the funniest person I ever knew. She was a riot. She could have made her living as a stand-up comedian, but she settled for being a therapist.
At one point, when we were both living in California, Sukie had to have a kidney transplant. It was a very fraught time for her, and the next year of recovery was hell for her. But she survived and lived for some years afterward, spending the last years of her life in Brazil.
As I mentioned, Sukie was a therapist and workshop leader whose work affected many people and who was widely loved. After her death, many tributes poured in, including one from the woman who had donated one of her kidneys to Sukie.
I wrote her this letter:
Dear Cynthia,I knew Sukie a long time. I first met her in New York, probably in the late 80s, at the suggestion of Michael Murphy, the co-founder of Esalen. I was then a professor at the University of Connecticut. At that time she was living on 63rd St., and we hit it off immediately and became great friends. We spent most of our time gossiping and laughing and talking about death — she was into her afterdeath research then and since I had specialized in doing research and writing about near-death experiences, we had a lot to discuss. She was one of the funniest persons I had ever met, and she often had me splitting my gut (not necessarily spilling them) listening to some of her anecdotes. In those years, she would often put me up when I was visiting New York and we had a ball.After she moved to California, we didn’t see each other that much of course, but I sometimes came to California to give talks and to see some of my own other friends and family and would see her then. But she encouraged me to move back here (I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area) and eventually I did — in late ’96 — so our friendship resumed then. At that point, she was living up near Petaluma. We continued our gossip, this time mostly around her pool, and talked about our work, too, of course. To welcome me to California, she was kind enough to give me one of Amos Ferguson’s paintings, which still hangs in my bedroom. She was a great connoisseur of Caribbean art, and Amos was one of her discoveries.I remember when she got sick with her kidney problem and how she mobilized everyone in the world to search for one that could be donated. I never knew who did (perhaps she told me, but I don’t think so). But obviously it was you who gave Sukie so many more years to live. But that time, as you must know, was hell for her, and afterward, it was hell of another kind for a long time. Nevertheless, she never lost her sense of humor, and she was a fighter all the way. So eventually she got better and became more or less her old self. Our contacts continued until she left to live in Brazil. Her life here had come pretty much to a standstill and, though she had some trepidation, naturally, about moving to Brazil, we all wished her well. I think I only saw her once or twice afterward on her visits back. But, as you know, Sukie, who was dyslexic, wasn’t a writer. So gradually we pretty much lost touch with each other once she was settled into her life in Brazil and I didn’t hear again from her for some years.She is someone I will never forget — a colorful, wonderful, funny-as-hell inimitable person, and a gossiper nonpareil. It was a blessing to know her, and I’m sure once she recovers her wits she will have them laughing in the aisles in her new residence.Thank you again for all you did to keep her in this world for so long.
I hardly have any friends from "the days of youth." Even most of those I knew in college or graduate school disappeared long ago from my life or have died. But Bill was one that I actually reconnected with after I moved back to California. By then, we had almost nothing in common, but, still, it was good to see him and he actually looked much the same except for having lost his hair. And, alas, it was clear to me that he had lost something underneath it as well. A few years later, he died. I was unable to attend his memorial service, but I did write this tribute to him that was read on that occasion.
I can’t remember when I first met Bill – it must have been in high school in Oakland – but we became good friends when we were at Cal together and shared many adventures in those days. Once, some friends of ours wanted to get married against their parents wishes, so six of us, including Bill and me, contrived to deceive our own parents and drove off to Reno with the bridal couple to be, and then had to get home that night to pretend, "it was just another day at school." (And fifty years later, with the couple long since married, all six of us did it again – without having to deceive our parents this time.)But my biggest adventure with Bill was going to Mexico City after our sophomore year at Cal. It was the first time either of us had been out of the country, and we were not used to the attitude either. I remember during our first day there, we suddenly both felt so sleepy and oxygen-deprived that we simultaneously collapsed in Chapultepec Park and took a snooze, oblivious of whoever had to step over us. But we eventually recovered, went to Sanborn’s to get something to eat and had to consume a gallon of water with our meal because we weren’t used to those hot peppers either. Ay, caramba!I don’t have time to tell you about all the other things we did there – climbing the pyramids, almost getting killed by maniac Mexican drivers, learning how useless our high school Spanish was, etc. But our adventures continued after we got back when we managed to drive our car into a ditch in Baja California and had to be rescued by some very good-hearted braceros who had a good laugh at these young useless gringos.But this tells you nothing about Bill in those ancient days of our golden youth. Bill was not only extremely handsome (we all envied his looks), but one of the sweetest, most even-tempered and humorous fellows one could imagine.He was really one of a kind and we all loved him.I have one image of him now that seems to capture his gaiety, light-heartedness, and puckish sense of fun. I remember his penchant for spontaneously leaping over parking meters, laughing, with the grace of a Michael Jordan. Bill, too, could float. He was lighter than air.What a beautiful soul he was. He enriched my life and though we didn’t have much contact in recent years, I will always remember him with gratitude and the deepest affection.Leap on, dear Bill. You are really weightless now….Kenneth Ring,Cal, class of ‘58
She was Dutch, and her real name was Johanna, but everyone called her Joke (pronounced Yo-ka). She had had a near-death experience, and I had first met her in connection with a talk I gave on the subject while in Amsterdam. She was also a talented singer. I was asked to contribute a eulogy which was read at her memorial service.
As I write, I look off to my right, and a few feet away me, on the wall of my study, is a large framed color photograph. In the background, we see Patmos on a sparkling clear day, with the cerulean waters of the Aegean Sea providing more atmospheric beauty to the scene. In the foreground, there is a woman seated on a white ledge who is holding aloft in her right hand a bouquet of white flowers. On her face is a smile that radiates pure joy.It is of course an image of Joke – Joke on her wedding day. Beside her stands her husband, Robert, in a dark suit, much older than beautiful Joke, with his shock of white hair. I can’t tell if he is looking bemused or perplexed or simply with indulgent affection at his new bride.I first met Joke about twenty-five years ago on my first trip to Amsterdam. Quite by chance, at the last moment, one night she impulsively invited some friends and me to her apartment after dinner, and I still remember how astonished I was to find it lined with thousands of books, from top to bottom, along all of its walls. I was immediately enraptured; I felt that I could be very happy there for months exploring her many books – notwithstanding the fact, of course, that most of them were not in English. But what happened next was really what bonded Joke and me for life, as it turned out. While others were talking, she was speaking to me and happened to put on a recording of Fritz Wunderlich singing Tamino’s aria from The Magic Flute. I happened to love Fritz Wunderlich (as did Joke) and recognized his voice immediately. The rest of the evening was passed in a mood of enchantment; I have never forgotten it.Joke and I stayed in touch ever after, and we saw each other again, too. On a subsequent trip to Amsterdam, I returned to her apartment and was very happy to meet Robert who impressed me very much with his scholarship and courtly manners. Joke and I wandered among the canals of Amsterdam that time – she always keeping a sharp eye out for her glaucomic friend to make sure he wasn’t run down by a mad cyclist – and we wound up talking one day about Ovid, so she decided to take me to a café – as a surprise – called Ovidius. (I still have a napkin I had saved from that occasion and came across it recently in a book about Ovid.)Joke came to California once, perhaps ten years ago now, to visit me. She had spent some time here when she was young and wanted to re-visit her old haunts in Berkeley, which she thoroughly enjoyed, telling me many stories in the process. One was about the man who founded Peet’s coffee shop whom she had known personally. She wanted to see if he was still alive, so we went to the very first store that he established and found out that he was – and was living, I believe, in Oregon at the time. But Joke managed to re-establish contact with him and later told me how much it had meant to him since by then he was very old and somewhat infirm.Joke spread her joy whenever she went.But you know what I particularly remember about that trip? It may surprise you; it certainly did me. She loved to shop, so we went shopping together. She tried on clothes and I either nodded or shook my head. We had a ball together.Otherwise, we maintained contact over the years by e-mail. She would write me funny letters in her quixotic English, and some that were not so funny, but more serious, as when she was having troubles, either physically or emotionally. But I was always happy to see her name in my inbox.I kept in touch with her until almost the very end when she was no longer able to write. She would sometimes ask me to send her jokes, which I did. I was happy to give her something to make her laugh while she still could.In just about her last note to me she wrote:"I would like to stay in a beautiful hotel and look at the blue sea. And I would like to talk with you and go shopping with you one more time ... etc.Meanwhile my friends take so good care of me.I get much love and attention, I am very grateful for them.I live day by day now. Have no idea how long this will last — This life as Joke.Please keep sending your thoughts.I love you."
I love you, too, dearest Joke, as I gaze again at your photograph and beaming smile. You will always be alive to me and perhaps are already adding your voice to the music of the spheres.
It’s sweet to remember these departed friends of mine. When you’re old and nothing of interest is happening in your life, you spend lots of time living in memory. It helps to recall the life you had when you could travel the world, see friends, have adventures and think that they would never end, even though you knew someday you would. And now, all of us, of whatever age, are living in a mostly isolated COVID-dominated world, away from friends, and waiting for the world to start again. It will. I may not be here to see it, but maybe some of you will remember me and recall the times we spent together in these blogs I’ve inflicted on you.